A pedigree sailing tour that still has eyes on Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 August, 2010, 12:00am

Peter Gilmour certainly knows his sport, holding as he does a top commercial position in the sailing business, and a wealth of experience in competitions. So when he talks with pride and enthusiasm about the possibility of Hong Kong hosting a round of the World Match Racing Tour (WMRT), which is looking to expand in Asia and the Middle East in the near future, it's worth listening.

The 50-year-old Australian (pictured, next column), who is president of the hugely successful tour, and has been a match-racing competitor for 30 years, has made his case for Hong Kong to join before. But when the WMRT approached the Hong Kong authorities with a view to hosting a round here, they were turned down in favour of the Louis Vuitton Trophy.

Now, after the sudden cancellation of the Louis Vuitton showpiece, which was supposed to have been held next year at the new Pier 10 site in Central, the WMRT has a second chance.

Organisers cancelled the Louis Vuitton Trophy after teams decided to skip the event to compete in America's Cup-related events next year and in 2012.

Gilmour believes that in Hong Kong, with its stunning harbour and outstanding facilities, the WMRT would have a dramatic impact, both for the sport and the local economy.

Using the same format as in the America's Cup, and with racing taking place in identical supplied yachts, match racing focuses on teamwork, team tactics and skills.

So far the WMRT has included rounds in Germany, France, Portugal, Sweden, Bermuda, Switzerland, Denmark, South Korea and Malaysia.

Qingdao, which hosted the sailing events at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, has also been included in the 10-round calendar.

Malaysia hosts the season-ending finale, the Monsoon Cup, which takes place in late November.

Gilmour first made the WMRT's case in Hong Kong last year. He tried to convince the Hong Kong authorities that the sailing extravaganza could be an iconic annual event like the Rugby Sevens.

'We had discussions with the Hong Kong government, the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club and the Hong Kong Yachting Association,' Gilmour says.

'Then Louis Vuitton rolled into town and the club took an interest in that. We were turned down, but we made a presentation to Qingdao, which has now taken an enormous interest in our series.

'By and large, it's not anyone's fault [that Hong Kong had failed to stage the Louis Vuitton Trophy].

'Certainly Louis Vuitton essentially doesn't have a world championship structure. The WMRT is an annual event and has been going on for 30 years in different forms.'

Gilmour said the WMRT would not face the problem that the Louis Vuitton Trophy had of being unable to get a commitment from the top teams to come here to race.

'When the [WMRT] goes to a venue, it makes a firm commitment [by contract], and basically because every event adds to the world championship, teams cannot choose to do other things,' he said.

'I can see the disappointment of not having the Louis Vuitton Trophy in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is an outstanding venue. It's an island surrounded by water.

'I was recently up there and there's a tremendous chance of hosting a major sailing event [in Hong Kong waters],' the Perth-based Gilmour said.

As the WMRT is one of only three events sanctioned by the International Sailing Federation - the other two events are the America's Cup and the Volvo Ocean Race - the WMRT has a strong case to sail here.

And there would be no shortage of big-name competitors if Hong Kong does embrace the WMRT. The tour features many of the potential America's Cup skippers, including three-time Olympic champion Ben Ainslie of Britain, and other renowned sailors such as Adam Minoprio of New Zealand, the series' defending champion, Australia's 2008 champion, Torvar Mirsky, and Italian Francesco Bruni.

The tour was bought last year by Patrick Lim, a Malaysian businessman and entrepreneur who has links with Formula One motor racing. Lim is keen to add a further 10 rounds to the series within five years. Qingdao is the latest addition. The mainland-Chinese round has been scheduled for October 19-24.

Gilmour says the success of the Monsoon Cup in Terengganu, on the northern coast of Malaysia, is the second-most important sporting event in the country after Formula One. The event attracts up to 100,000 spectators. It also gave Malaysia a return on investment of 26:1, on media value.

Hong Kong could also reap such rewards from the series. Gilmour thinks that match racing would cost significantly less than the Louis Vuitton Trophy.

'With the World Matching Racing Tour, once a venue owns a fleet of boats, once that's been established, the primary costs of the event go towards promoting the event,' Gilmour says.

'As a promoter knows, that can be as flexible as you want it to be. The cost will probably be half that [of the Louis Vuitton Trophy, which would cost about HK$45 million,] to put it on very well in Hong Kong.'

'I have been match racing for 30 years and I am pretty much heading towards the end of my game. Hence I have also joined the tour as a consultant/adviser. I have a big interest in what the WMRT is doing and I have taken on that greater role to help and support this expansionary phase.'

Gilmour, a three-time world match racing champion (2003-2006), also competed with five different syndicates for Australia in the America's Cup.

'It's [match racing] one on one, and basically along the pathway to the America's Cup.

'All the famous sailors who have competed in the America's Cup, like Dennis Conner, John Bertrand, Russell Coutts, Ed Baird, James Spithill - all the sailors who have recently won the America's Cup - developed their skills on the World Match Racing Tour first.

'There is also prize money US$1.5 million [total for the series]. Each event has its level of prize money.'

According to Gilmour, media and live television coverage for one series reached about 1.6 billion households, in more than 100 countries around the world.

A spokeswoman for the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club (RHKYC) said it would welcome events staged in Hong Kong.

'They [WMRT] have approached us before, and we have to see how the government sees it,' says Betty Chan Tak-ling, public relations and communications manager with the club.

'We are open to discussions. [The proposal for staging the WMRT] has to be assessed, and we're happy to assist if the event really does come to Hong Kong,''

A long history of growth

1 The World Match Racing Tour is the world's leading professional sailing series and has been in existence for about 30 years. This year's tour consists of 10 rounds. The series uses a 'match race' format similar to the America's Cup.

2 Outside Europe, the tour has been expanded to include rounds in Malaysia and Qingdao in China. The tour culminates in the Monsoon Cup in November in the town of Terengganu on the northern coast of Malaysia.

3 Total prize money for the series is US$1.5 million.

4 Many of the world's greatest sailors, such as Dennis Conner, John Bertrand and Russell Coutts have competed in the series before. The tour's biggest name now is Britain's three-time Olympic gold medallist Ben Ainslie.

5 Prominent Malaysian businessman Patrick Lim bought the series last year and is keen to expand the tour to the Middle East and Asia, hoping a further 10 rounds will be added to the series within five years.